Rage On! Or Not …

Why a photo with sheep? They make me smile.

Early this morning, while walking with my faithful canine companion, an SUV pulls out from a driveway just ahead of us and heads in our direction. The driver, a male stranger of middle age, offers a friendly wave and smile. As I wave back, my heart lifts from this simple act of kindness.

It brought to mind a man who for about 20 years has been, among other things, a friend of the unconditional variety. We haven’t spoken for 6 months? It’s like we talked yesterday. You know what I mean. This man lives in a different city and holds political views in diametrical opposition to my own. He and I speak on the phone with some regularity. We know where we each stand; he sometimes teases me about my views, as I do about his. But we do not argue.

These days political differences, once a more or less permeable boundary, as in “working across the aisle,” have morphed into alternate realities. Each “community” grinds their own axe, to hell with others who see things differently. We saw the extremities of this divide on the day when citizens attacked their own capitol, some with apparent murderous intent. 

No amount of persuasive speech or rational evidence will change the minds of those whose are charged up with anger. Anger, as you know, is an expression of fear. Bullies are fearful. Those who engage one-on-one with bullies are foolish, yet letting bullies rage unhindered only serves to endanger others.

Should there be limits on free speech? I am not so sure that turning off the tap at this point serves much purpose. The flow will only erupt and spew elsewhere. Hateful speech may incite some, but the root of the problem lies elsewhere. You can only light a fire where the fuel is already laid. What are those who are so angry afraid of? That’s where to begin with solutions. 

A man pulls out of his driveway. He waves and smiles at a woman walking her dog in the morning sun. The woman waves back. Her heart is lifted. She thinks of the good that comes from kindness. And sharing this, she knows that some will view her as simplistic.

Rage on, my friends! Or relax, regain perspective, and share a friendly wave with a stranger. Refrain from argument. See behind the anger. Don’t react to bullies–they feed off of anger. Try not to shun those who currently dwell in an alternate reality. 

Having said this, we need to work together towards an equitable society where all life forms can thrive. Where humans beings are equal regardless of any external factors, where all have enough but not too much. 

Sending you a smile. Share it with the next stranger you meet.


“This is the Best Day of My Life”

A white squirrel licking sap from a tree. Happy day!

A gentleman in his 80th decade walks down the corridor. As we pass he pauses.

“A good afternoon to you,” he says.

“How are you doing today?” I ask, going against my personal vow to avoid trite social questions.

“This the best day of my life,” he responds.

I didn’t ask what made this a grand day. His response could have been either cynical or deeply meaningful. Not knowing the man well enough to probe, I smile and continue on my way.

Ze hayom, a Hebrew phrase meaning “this is the day,” opens Psalm 118:24. What day? Asah Adonai. The day that the Creator has created. So what? Negilah v’nismacha bo. So, we are to rejoice and be glad in it. End of story. Just do it.

Once upon a time, I called my mom, who is no more in this life, to complain, “I am having the worst day ever.”

Her response? “Well, Gail, if this is the worst day ever, then tomorrow has to be a better day. Right?”

But was it the worst day? That have certainly been some dillies since. Did that day, with its unremembered challenges, teach me something important? Are there really “good” days and “bad” days? Who are we to judge?

I am sitting at a desk in Minneapolis, looking out a window as snowflakes pass by on a 45 degree trajectory from the south. A man with a COVID mask hanging from one ear walks by accompanied a high-stepping maple brown poodle. They walk under a leafless ash tree, its twigs swaying in a light breeze. Earlier, on a brisk morning walk (3 degrees F), I watched a pair of hunting coyotes, on the lookout for bunnies or rodents. Then I spotted an albino squirrel on a tree, which despite the presence of my dog, stayed still long enough for me to dig my phone out and take a photo.

This is the day. The only day. This is the moment. The only moment. As I write this, as you read this, the moment is here, then the moment passes. We awake, we sleep, we dream, on and on, the days pass.

Where the Crawdads Sing, A Novel by Delia Owens

CAN you tell a book by the cover? 

The cover of Where the Crawdads Sing gives the potential reader helpful, as well as misleading, information about the book’s contents. First, the title. The word “Where” clues us in that setting will be important. And it is. One could almost say that the setting, a marshy area on the North Carolina coast, is the main character. The protagonist Kya is known by disdainful locals as “the Marsh Girl” and she truly is shaped by the environment in which she dwells. 

The word “Crawdads” establishes the novel as geographically set in the southern United States. Northerners would use the term “crayfish.” Putting a creature in the title hints at the primacy of nature as a theme. As we all know, crawdads by any name do not sing, causing us to wonder if this reference is legend, metaphor, delusion, or allusion. In any case, the title is a bit catchy.

From the back flyleaf we learn that the author has co-authored non-fiction volumes based on work with wildlife in Africa. This is her first work of fiction. She now lives in Idaho, which is a long way from North Carolina marshes. A brief internet search reveals that she grew up in Georgia, and (drumroll) is wanted in Zambia for questioning in relation to the murder of a poacher! Does this in any way inform the plot of this book?

Interestingly, the front cover portrays a female figure paddling a canoe down a tree-lined channel, toward an orange-tinged sky. Note that Kya drives a motorboat, not a canoe. But the painting is pretty.

To assure you that I actually read the book, let’s take a brief gander at the plot. At age 6, Kya is abandoned by her mom and siblings. At age 10, her alcoholic and unpredictable father also departs, after which she (improbably, in my mind) lives alone in an isolated shack and manages to stay alive by what she grows, forages, and catches. Her relationships are with creatures, primarily seagulls. Then she meets Tate, who teaches her to read in such an efficient way that she is soon perusing scientific textbooks. Not surprisingly, she falls for him. He, like her family before him, abandons her. Then she is pursued by Chase (not joking). This also comes to no good. Back to the seagulls. 

A mysterious death ensues and our protagonist is mixed up in it. I won’t reveal more. The ending is clearly written to be surprising, which it was, but also left me with…a squeamish feeling. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is beloved by many readers. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a LONG time. Why? My assessment: a pleasant quick read, an appealing setting, a pulls-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps main character, murder, mystery, love, loss, and a sense of loneliness that touches something inside of every human being.

Peace vs. Fear

What feeling do you get from this image?

More and more Americans, many of whom would be considered “decent people”, are buying weapons for self-defense. Is this really the best response to the perception of an increasingly violent society?

We each need to answer this for ourselves, of course, as we do all ethical questions which face us in life. My hope is that arming yourself does not become a reflexive response to unexamined fear.

Violence is not the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. Peace is an active attitude of trust, contentment, compassion, serenity and gratitude. Fear robs us of peace. We expect the worst, while buying into the idea that danger is always lurking outside the door.

What are the odds that you will find yourself in the position to shoot, or even threaten another human being with a gun? The odds vary by where you live, those with whom you associate, your personal habits, and your level of reactivity.

Every morning I walk by a tent encampment in a nearby park. Assuming that you live in a home, do these people have more to fear than you? Very likely so. Life is dangerous for those who lack safe housing, whether it be an encampment, a shelter, or home in an area with high levels of criminal activity.

This leads to the question of why a growing numbers of individuals, whom many of the “homed” fear, are “homeless.” We all know the answers–destructive personal habits, poor financial choices, mental health issues, or a criminal history which makes housing and employment difficult.

Why do people commit crimes? The answers overlap with why people lack homes.

Rather than spending your time buying guns, attending gun safety training, and going to a shooting range, what about making your community a better place for all people? Work for candidates who choose not to promote fear to get elected. Volunteer for organizations that provide jobs, affordable housing, job training and support, addiction assistance, and mental health counseling. Or use some of the money you save by not buying guns to start your own campaign or organization!

Peace trumps fear every time, my friends.

Summer Solstice

Minnehaha Falls

Yesterday summer officially began. As usual, my dog and I started the day with an early morning walk through Minnehaha Park to the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. Other than a couple of fisher-people, we usually have the place pretty much to ourselves. Armed with a plastic bag and gloves, each day I pick up garbage left by visitors since the previous morning’s cleaning. It is satisfying work.

Public parks are such a gift. Natural features are protected from development and harm, and everyone is welcome. Fees are minimal; many are free. Public parks allow access to beautiful places regardless of your ethnicity, race, income, age, or gender. Think of it! We all own riverfront, lakefront, and historically or environmentally significant areas that we can visit whenever we wish.

Along with parks as great institutions of equality, we need to place public libraries. As a small-town kid one of my greatest joys on summer days was riding my bike to the library and checking out a stack of books. Anyone can get a library card and educate themselves. They can use a computer to look for a job, do their homework, or research an interest. In my adult life, when I need a change of scenery, my public library offers a quiet, comfortable place to work on writing projects. Plus libraries smell great. Like books!

My kids attended a diverse public high school in St. Paul. There they had the opportunity to excel and grow as human beings. On a daily basis they interacted with students who were born in other countries and who were culturally diverse. A few students were well-to-do, some were mid-range, as we were, and many were truly poor. With all due respect to those who send their kids to elite private schools, I believe that a real education must take place in the real world.

Public institutions are created to be bastions of equality. Parks do this well, libraries, too. Public schools certainly have a way to go in terms of funding. Our legislature would well to consider how our schools are paid for, and how to distribute funds fairly across all school districts. There is no excuse for kids in Edina, for example, to get a better education than kids in North Minneapolis, for example.

In addition to supporting and improving parks, libraries and schools, we can extend the equalizing power of public institutions by working toward universal health care, free home internet access for all, and free community colleges. I had the good fortune to teach at a great community college in Chicago for a few years. Many students were newly arrived immigrants, as well as those who had ability but didn’t thrive in their high school environments, and those who were wise enough to see community college as an affordable option for their first two years. Every American of any age or circumstance should have the opportunity to attend community college free of charge. This should be extended in the future to 4-year state colleges and universities.

In this time of social upheaval and momentum for improvement, let’s look to the equalizing power of our great public institutions as agents for societal change.